Rights and Wrongs of the War Between the States

I love history. The American War for Independence and World War II are typically my favorite periods to study (and why is it that times of war are the most interesting?). However I have avoided the most hotly debated and most talked about era, that of the War Between the States,being often mislabeled as the American “Civil War”. I have avoided it because it is a most complicated and multifaceted topic which would require much research and even soul-searching to come to a conclusion over. WWII is simple. Some nutcase wanted to take over the world and the rest of the world had to stop him. But the War of Northern Aggression (sorry, I couldn’t resist) is vastly different. It involved so many “yes, buts”. There is a lot of “This, however that also” which causes it to be a confusing topic especially when you try and discuss the causes.

This is not a cut-and-dried topic and it ruffles my feathers when people treat it as such. So many folks try to paint the War Between the States as “evil Southerners wanted to enslave a people, and the heroes of the North led by Lincoln had to come and defeat the Southern powers of darkness.” It was hardly as simple as all that. Both sides overstepped the bounds of law and decency and there were atrocities committed by the Union as well as the Confederacy. No, Lincoln should not have sent American troops to march on American states but also the Confederacy’s attack on Fort Sumter was unprovoked. I have only been studying this topic for a few weeks now but here I want to list a few events that are rarely taught in school and that opened my eyes to the complexity of the issues at the root of the War Between the States.

It Wasn’t Fought Over Slavery, But Over States’ Rights!

Yes, however the right to own slaves was the state right in question. Southern politicians and Southern plantation owners needed slaves. Plantation owners needed slavery to support Dixie’s socio-economic status. Southern politicians needed new states to have slavery so as┬áto maintain the slaveholding South’s political clout.

There is something interesting I have discovered however. The large slaveholding plantation owners were not the majority, at least not in numbers. Most Southern farmers were small fries who could barely support their families much less a house full of slaves and servants. And as a result most middle- and lower-class Southern whites didn’t give a rip about the slave issue. By the same token most Northern folks didn’t either. It was an argument for politicians and aristocrats mostly. But what did get the attention of middle- and lower-class Southern whites was a Northern invasion of the South which resulted in the first battle of the war, the Battle of First Manassas (also called Bull Run).

Abraham Lincoln was the hero of the slave and his purpose was to free blacks.

No, Lincoln’s self-declared purpose was to maintain the Union. The founding fathers formed “a more perfect union”. How would you like to go down in history as the man who let it go down the drain? Yeah, Lincoln didn’t like that prospect either. He even said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union, he would do it, or if maintaining slavery would save the Union, he would do it. He no doubt believed slavery was wrong and he wanted to see it end but that is not why he invaded and fought the Confederacy.

The Emancipation Proclamation Freed the Slaves

Well, partially. The Emancipation Proclamation (EP) freed Confederate slaves. The slaveholding Union states outlawed it legislatively. And the EP was not given as some sort of idealistic “let my people go” edict. As mentioned above, the end of slavery would mean curtains for Southern socio-economic strength. Without slaves, the rich, economically-necessary plantations could not operate. Lincoln knew that freeing Southern slaves would harm the Southern war effort.

Lincoln’s EP also had another political effect and thus arose from a political motive. It kept Great Britain out of the war. Britain was close to entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. However, having recently undergone abolition of slavery herself (thanks to William Wilberforce), it would have been a conflict of interest for Britain to join a war fighting against a nation (the United States) which had taken a formal stance against slavery (the EP). The EP produced a most desirable effect (the freedom of Southern slaves), but the motivation was purely political.

Yes, but saving the Union was the right thing to do!
Was it? I suppose this is a matter of opinion. It all depends on how you view states’ rights. The question of states’ rights is still a debate. Just because the Civil War-era debate over states’ rights involved the question of slavery does not mean it was or is a non-issue. The United States is just that: an agreement, a pact among sovereign states. Just read the Declaration of Independence which declares that these are “and of right ought to be free and independent states.” The Declaration also states that when the bonds that have tied one state to another no longer serve the purposes of those involved then such bonds should be dissolved. That is the right of every free and independent state and is the very right that South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina were attempting to exercise when Lincoln sent American troops to attack American states. Was that action just?

Then again, was it just that the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter without provocation?

In the final analysis, I would have to say that both sides should have left well enough alone. The Union should have honored the South’s right to secede and the South should have simply seceded and went on its merry way. It is my personal belief that these states are stronger united than separate and that even without a war both sides would have seen their mutual need of one another and the Union would have been restored through the natural course of time. By the same token, there had already been great moral concerns over slavery and since only a small aristocracy had any personal advantage in keeping it around, I believe that slavery would also have come to an inevitable demise. Abolition was already winning the day in other parts of the world so it was only a matter of time before it would come to American shores (in the same way that American segragation eventually ended on its own). But Lincoln forced the issue and thus economic harm and years of resentment resulted. Also Lincoln’s efforts made the federal government too strong and today we pay for it economically and in terms of states’ rights. Thankfully we have been able to overcome the resentment and the economic woes of Reconstruction and the South is strong and so I believe we will eventually overcome the harm done to states’ rights and sovereignty through the natural course of time.

Josh H.

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